…or How I was Bumped Off a Flight for Fish!
I just came back from a quick trip to Tokyo where Jim and I got up early, waited in the lines, and watched the tuna auction at Tsukiji Market. On the flight home, in my jet-stream fog, I had a memory…a memory of when I was refused a seat on the plane, and I was stuck in Akutan, Alaska. Where is Akutan? It’s one of the Aluetian Islands off the cold and windy coast of Alaska.
Sit back and let me tell you a true tale of a woman (me), alone, stuck in bush Alaska. “Why?” You might ask. Well, you guessed it, because of the Japanese love of fish! On Friday, on a not-too-cold Alaskan fall day, I checked-in on my flight to Dutch Harbor. Now, I’ve flown this route many times, and I know that you must ask about the weather. Weather can be tricky out on those wind-swept islands, the islands that are part of the Aleutian chain, very isolated islands.
Me: How’s it look out there today?
Agent: Oh, it’s a little bumpy, but I think it’ll be a go.
A little bumpy can mean a lot of things, and the one I hoped it didn’t mean was we’re going to hit massive wind-shear and turn this thing around, so that after two hours of vomit-inducing “bumpiness” we return to Anchorage to re-book for another day. Don’t laugh, it’s happened. It’s happened.
I turned to Jim, kissed him goodbye and said, “See you Sunday”(holding up two crossed fingers)! As luck would have it, we only circled Dutch a couple of times and we made our landing on what is one of the shortest runways fit for jet aircraft in the world! No kidding, Qantas Airline pilots go there to try their hand at landing on short runways. On one side there’s a mountain, and on the other is the ocean. Scary!
Well, like I said, I’d done this many times, but I’d never landed in Dutch to turn around and change to a small, amphibious aircraft, called the Goose to fly into Akutan, a very tiny native fishing village that swarms with fishermen and fish processors a couple times a year. I was super excited! This was the real bush! There were five of us heading out to Akutan; and as we walked out to the Grumman aircraft, owned by Peninsula Air, we were met by the pilot. He introduced himself to us as Nick Sias, aka. Cowboy. He looked like a cowboy, too, in his jeans and boots. He told us a little about the plane, especially the part where we would land in the water then asked if anyone would want to ride up front. Um, Yes! That would be me!
I’d taken flying lessons when I was fifteen years old as well as worked on aircraft electrical systems in the Air Force, so I do kind of know my way around a cockpit. I love the smell of oil and hydraulic fluid and the dials with their grimy fingerprints around the edges. I climbed in and just couldn’t stop smiling. The flight from Dutch to Akutan is only about twenty minutes. The Goose flew right over the top of that mountain I always hope to not crash into. So it’s up, over, and down we went. Cowboy had been regaling me with stories of his lucrative flying career, and he stopped mid-sentence to tell me that he was going to get ready to land, “flaps down.” Down, we went, plop! Right into the water. Next Cowboy is telling me to watch as he cranks the wheels down so he can drive up the ramp.
Honestly, I don’t know how I felt at this moment. I was extremely happy that the plane actually floats, but the gear grinding noise of the wheels being manually cranked down is a little disconcerting, to say the least.
“Watch this,” Cowboy quips as he pushes the throttle forward and the audible crush and churn of water almost reaches the sound of the middle of a waterfall. The plane creeps then gains speed as we near the shore, finally I feel the bump that signals we’ve hit land…literally, and up she drives, onto the ramp of the non-existent airstrip.
What a fun, fun, ride. I looked around to see yet one more small Alaskan town and am not surprised at the HUD housing and the barracks-like, white-washed buildings that serve as everything from offices to sleeping areas. I was taken to one, given a key and shown to my room. Rooms in bush Alaska run the gamut. I wasn’t expecting much from this one, since it wasn’t a hotel, just a place where people can sleep if they are there overnight. I was there to do my job, talk to some parents and run a short program for the adolescent girls in the community (about 25). There was only one place to eat in town, and of course I walked all over, but there isn’t much to see or do, so it was back to my book to spend the night and get up and catch my flight out of there at 8:00 in the morning. I can’t say Akutan was a let-down, but getting there was really the majority of the thrill. I was looking forward to repeating the next day.
Sunday morning comes along. My suitcase and I make it down to the pad, dock, driveway, ramp, coast, beach, whatever you want to call the 10 feet by 20 feet blacktop that ended up covered in water. The goose arrived, out jumped Cowboy. Not as friendly as two days ago, he said, “What are you doing here?”
Me: I’m on this flight.
Cowboy: You’re not on this flight!
Me (flustered and ready): Yes, yes I am. Look here’s my ticket.
Cowboy: Tickets don’t mean anything. You are not getting on this flight.
Cowboy: I’ve got a full load that takes priority over you, now leave.
Me: I’m not sure I understand…I have a ticket for this flight. I have another ticket out of Dutch Harbor. I need to take this flight.
Cowboy: Look, I’ve got fish roe to deliver! There is not enough room for you. Come back tomorrow. I might be able to get you on that flight.
Huh? Tomorrow? Fish roe? Eggs? Fish eggs? I’m being bumped for fish eggs? There was so much that just didn’t make sense to me. Here I was, with a ticket, being bumped for fish eggs. Great. Another night in Akutan. Just great.
At the restaurant later, I learned that the Japanese love the fish roe. They were the only ones who would pay for the stuff, and they paid top dollar. There was no way I was going to take up space that fish roe would need. Fish roe always took priority getting off that island. Still flummoxed, there was nothing I could do but hope that tomorrow there would be space for one person…me.
As it turns out, there was fish roe on that plane, too, but it was only half a load and I was able to share the back of the airplane with it. For 20 minutes, that fish roe and I stared at each other. Fish roe.
Back in Dutch, thankfully winds were down and my second flight was a go. I was on my way back to Anchorage. It was time to go home.
Notes: I went to Akutan in 1995, and the very next year Cowboy (or Rick Sias) crashed the Goose and died. Parts were washing up on shore a year after that. People of Dutch Harbor fondly remember him, and his life is celebrated with a memorial bench. The G21 Grummans built for World War II lasted in these types of capacities for over 60 years. According to this Oct. 27, 2010 article in the Alaska Dispatch, they have built a brand-new airport across the bay on Akun, a deserted island. I’m not sure what planes fly in and out of there now, but I do wonder who has priority the fish or the human ticket holders?
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What is one of the most unbelievable things to have happened to you while traveling? Ever get bumped off an airplane? Ever been to bush Alaska? I’d love to hear your stories!